By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jim Helsinger
Starring Jonathan Epstein, Greg Jackson, Jean Tafler, and Esau Pritchard
Orlando Shakespeare Festival. Orlando FL
Horror is just horrible, but leaven it with a few laugh lines and it goes even darker. Hollywood rediscovered that about 1990, but The Bard knew that trick 500 years ago. “Titus Andronicus” is a Greek tragedy at heart, Titus (Epstein) returns from 40 years of battle with a nice retirement job – emperor of Rome. He slips by passing the gig off to the son of the late emperor, Saturnius (Jackson.) Saturnius’ brother Bassianus (Baldwin) was hoping for the job as well and the two don’t get along at all and that all we need to start they cycle of violence. As soon as Saturnius is in office, he steals his brother’s girlfriend Lavinia (Kelly Kilgore), takes up with the fiery Gothic princess Tamera (Tafler), and proceeds to pillage, plunder and burn his way through every actor on stage. You might point out Titus actually drew first blood, but that’s like worrying over who shot first in WW2. I’ll gloss the details; suffice it to say if you see someone you like on stage chances are they will die quickly and violently. Survivors are in short supply, and despite Saturnius’ evil ways and even more evil facial hair, the real nasty here is Aaron the Moor (Pritchard). He’s the one who famously and profusely apologizes for any good he may have done in life. Now that’s class. Evil class.
While Titus is the thoughtful one, his aversion to power opened this can of worms yet he never seems to realize that even after he loses 20 plus children. (He may have been fighting the 40 years’ war, but clearly there are down times.) Tamara looks like a 1920’s Hollywood vamp, and her two boys Chiron (Greg Joubert) and Demetrius (Matthew Natale Rush) are the metal head Bevis and Butthead of the Romans Empire. Other noteworthy roles are Lavinia who can work wonders on stage with neither hands nor tongue, and Super Villain Aaron escapes a noose around his neck yet finds an even more awful way to die. But my favorite actor was Justin Baldwin; he gets killed three times as Alarbus, Bassianus and then a minor servant the cannibal dinner scene.
The Shakes creative team played this show for gore but I was surprised how small the spatter zone was. The violence was serious; scenes like the behanding of Titus were fully wince-worthy as were the bagged heads of his two ex-sons. A benign metal sound track and lots of leather made the cast look a bit like they were headed for a Front 242 show as giant rolls of butcher paper hung from the ceiling and sopped up most of the blood. The audience ate it up – they may all seem nice at the post show reception, but I think most of them would do well in the Zombie Apocalypse. I fully admit this is my favorite Shakespeare piece, and tonight it was executed with a glorious lack of squeamishness. If you get front row seat, wear black. Heck, wear black and put on some white makeup and wrist studs. You’ll fit right in.
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